- In honor of the NBA's All-Star Game, two college basketball experts draft two eight-man rosters of the best Division I players right now and an outside judge makes the pick for who would win if the teams met on a neutral court.
There’s no college equivalent for the All-Star game the NBA is staging Sunday night in Los Angeles, but we've pretended that there was in selecting two eight-man teams composed of Division I players. Both of these squads are loaded with projected all-conference honorees and draft picks. Which one would win if they met on a neutral court? Sports Illustrated’s Molly Geary weighs in below. First, SI’s Dan Greene and Chris Johnson explain their picks. (One note about the player pool: Two injured players who made SI’s preseason All-America team, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. and Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, were not eligible.)
Dan: Trae Young
Yes, he and his Sooners have slowed of late, losing three in a row and six of eight. But recency bias aside, Young’s season-long numbers are still absurd—29.1 points, 9.3 assists, and four rebounds per game—and honestly, in an all-star game environment, with its lax defense and encouragement of creativity and pizzazz, is there anyone you would rather have than him? I would love to see Young actually play in this kind of game, surrounded by this kind of talent. But I’ll have to settle for him captaining my imaginary team, giving us a spectacular point guard around which to build a roster.
Chris: Jalen Brunson
There’s not a point guard in the country I’d rather have running my team than Brunson. He shoots well from both sides of the three-point line, he facilitates scoring opportunities for his teammates without being careless with the ball, he gets to the free-throw line and he converts a high percentage of his attempts once there. Brunson is the biggest reason Villanova has the No. 1 offense in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency. Young is a more prolific bucket-getter than Brunson, and the National Player of the Year race is Young’s to lose, but Brunson is a better fit on a squad loaded with other high-end scorers.
Chris: Mohamed Bamba
Bamba is the perfect defensive anchor for my team. Not only is he one of the Big 12’s best shot-blockers and one of its top rebounders on both ends of the floor, he was partly responsible for Young playing one of his worst games of the season to date, a 7-of-22 effort in a five-point loss at Texas on Feb. 3. Bamba’s presence wouldn’t stop Young from attacking the basket, but there’s a good chance Bamba would send a few of Young’s shots flying into the stands. And while Bamba would make a bigger impact on offense than defense, he’s also a dangerous lob threat and effective interior finisher.
Dan: Deandre Ayton
Not so surprisingly, we both opted to go small and big with our first pair of picks, though I’d imagine Bamba plays more of a wing role for Chris. I love the prospect of pairing up the country’s most impressive inside and outside talents (and two likely top-5 draft picks), and helping compensate for Young’s not-quite-all-star defense with an anchor who can block some shots and will absolutely clean the defensive glass. So far, what my core lacks in experience it makes up for in sheer talent.
Dan: Mikal Bridges
Alright, time for an upperclassman. Bridges is an outstanding talent who has really come into his own this season as a redshirt junior, and what I love about drafting him in this spot is the flexibility he enables a lineup to have. He has a size-quickness-length combo that allows him to guard just about anybody, and is versatile enough offensively that you can move him all around the floor depending on if you’re trying to go big or small. There’s not a team on which Mikal Bridges can’t find a role, and an important one at that.
Chris: Marvin Bagley III
You don’t see many teams at any level of basketball that include a 6’11” player who’s not the tallest player in his own front court. Bagley and Bamba aren’t ground-bound, low-post plodders, though. Both of them are nimble enough to roam out to the perimeter to check ball handlers and step away from the paint to knock down jump shots. Bagley is a double-double machine whom Brunson could feed for close-range finishes, and who could generate extra shot opportunities both for himself and his teammates by crashing the offensive glass. Bagley isn’t an ace defender, but Bamba could paper over his shortcomings on that end of the floor.
Chris: Keita Bates-Diop
Bates-Diop is an objectively awesome player for a championship contender in a high-major conference. He does just about everything for Ohio State—scoring, blocking shots, drawing fouls, rebounding. On my team, surrounded by a top-shelf rim protector (Bamba) and a high-volume inside scorer (Bagley) and a table-setting playmaker capable of creating good looks for himself (Brunson), Bates-Diop would operate in a narrower lane, but not one that he wouldn’t excel in. Bates-Diop’s ability to space the floor by knocking down long-range shots and defend multiple positions makes him a valuable rotation piece who can unlock different lineup combinations by playing either forward position.
Dan: Gary Clark
Much like his team, Clark is quietly one of the most effective players in the country, a standout defender —according to Sports-Reference.com, his defensive rating is the best in the country—who also scores and rebounds efficiently (and can knock down the occasional trey) and rarely turns the ball over. Plus, in college my roommate and I once left a jack-o-lantern on our apartment balcony until March, watching it slowly degrade into an orange puddle-like mush. So I've got a lot of respect for someone who plans to leave their Christmas tree up till graduation.
Dan: Jevon Carter
Yeah, I got pretty into defense around here. Having Carter—probably the best on-ball defensive guard in the nation, who has experience playing off the ball offensively—in the backcourt alongside Young helps turn this defense into a plus overall. And while, yes, part of my rationale for selecting Young was how he would thrive in a game where players tend to let up on defense, I do not believe it is physically possible for Carter to do such a thing, and the thought of him pestering the hell out of opposing ball-handlers in an all-star game delights me.
Chris: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Foul trouble wouldn’t be much of an issue for Jackson (5.7 fouls/40 minutes) in this setting, because he wouldn’t be asked to play a large number of minutes. Jackson could replace either Bamba or Bagley in the lineup without hurting my team on either end of the floor. He’s one of the Big Ten’s top shot-blockers, he can step out to the perimeter to contain guards, he converts his 2s at a favorable rate and he’s made more than 40% of his 3s so far this season. Between him, Bamba and Bagley, this rotation could include three of the top four big men selected in this summer’s draft.
Chris: Trevon Bluiett
The Big East’s most valuable offensive player, Brunson, is the starting point guard on my team. The Big East’s second most valuable offensive player, Bluiett, would come off the bench. He’s a potent shooter from beyond the arc (44.3% on 194 attempts) who’s also adept at drawing fouls, and he’s hitting his freebies at a 39.5% clip. With Brunson threatening defenses from the perimeter and Bagley feasting in the paint, Bluiett wouldn’t be asked to shoulder as large a scoring burden as he does with the Musketeers.
Dan: Allonzo Trier
I wanted to have a strong scoring two/three to play alongside Carter when Young needs a breather and there was no better player out there for that role than Trier, who has the country’s eighth-best true shooting percentage and is not getting the type of heralding you’d expect for a player with high preseason expectations who is playing as well as he is. He’s fourth in the country in offensive win shares.
Dan: Vince Edwards
The Boilermakers’ balance makes it tough for any star to really break through, but Edwards is having a fantastic senior season that deserves recognition. He is a heady player who defends well and offers some plus versatility as well—how often do you see a 6’8” power forwards rank in a major conference’s top 20 in assist rate during league play? How about assist rate and defensive rebounding rate? Moving him, Clark, and Bridges around will make for some fun coaching.
Chris: Khyri Thomas
Few players in the country would make a better backcourt partner for Brunson than Thomas. Brunson would have a lot of trouble hanging with Young, but Thomas, at 6’3” with a reported 6’11" wingspan, could take on that assignment for Brunson. Thomas would hound Young into lots of inefficient shots, and his length also would enable him to match up with several other players on Dan’s team. Thomas isn’t even the top scoring option on his own, real squad (that distinction belongs to senior Marcus Foster), let alone this fake one, but he wouldn’t need to put up a lot of points in a lineup with Brunson, Bagley, Bates-Diop and Bamba. Plus, Thomas can’t be left alone behind the three-point line (40%).
Chris: Chandler Hutchison
Grabbing another long wing who can move up or down the lineup depending on which other players are on the floor with him feels like a good idea. Hutchison, a projected first-round draft pick whom Boise State lists at 6’7”, 197 pounds and who reportedly has a 7-foot wingspan, is a solid reserve option for Thomas or Bates-Diop who expands the number of lineup permutations available for my team. Hutchison is a productive defensive rebounder and capable three-point shooter who can also hurt defenses by making frequent trips to the free throw line. He’s leading the Mountain West in scoring and ranks second in the conference in player efficiency rating.
Dan: Keenan Evans
For my last pick, I wanted to give some shine to a player having an all-star type season that is not really a household name. That’s why I opted for Evans, a tough-nosed point guard whose steady improvement has been pivotal to the Red Raiders’ sudden emergence as a nationally relevant Big 12 contender. He and Trier would make for a good backup version of the Young-Carter combo when those two aren’t on the floor. My choice came down to Evans and St. Mary’s big man Jock Landale, who is absolutely one of the 16 best players in the country this season but didn’t fit my roster quite as well. He’d have been my next pick if still on the board.
Trae Young, freshman, G, Oklahoma
Jevon Carter, senior, G, West Virginia
Mikal Bridges, RS junior, F, Villanova
Gary Clark, senior, F, Cincinnati
Deandre Ayton, freshman, C, Arizona
Allonzo Trier, junior, G, Arizona
Keenan Evans, senior, G, Texas Tech
Vince Edwards, senior, F, Purdue
Jalen Brunson, junior, G, Villanova
Khyri Thomas, junior, G, Creighton
Marvin Bagley III, freshman, F, Duke
Keita Bates-Diop, RS junior, F, Ohio State
Mohamed Bamba, freshman, C, Texas
Jaren Jackson Jr., freshman, F, Michigan State
Trevon Bluiett, senior, G, Xavier
Chandler Hutchison, senior, F, Boise State
And the winner is…
Molly Geary: First of all, these lineups feature some fascinating individual matchups, such as Jalen Brunson and his absurd efficiency going up against the defense of Jevon Carter (side note: were this real, Trae Young would likely be breathing a sigh of relief that Carter is on his side for once) and Deandre Ayton going up against the likes of Mo Bamba and Marvin Bagley down low.
For Team Dan, there’s a real commitment on the defensive end here with Carter and Gary Clark, two of the nation’s premier defenders, both starting. I like the balance between having them and then having Young running the show and having weapons like Ayton and Mikal Bridges at his disposal. Even in an All-Star game, Young will draw plenty of attention, and he’ll be surrounded by people who can all knock down the three. I imagine, having less pressure to carry the burden in this type of format, this is the kind of game where Young could really rack up the assists instead of needing to depend on challenging the likes of Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. in the paint.
On the other hand, Team Chris has plenty of offense on its own. Brunson, Thomas and Bluiett all shoot over 40% from three and make for a better perimeter-shooting backcourt than Team Dan’s, with Bagley and Bamba, who both rank in the top 80 in offensive rebounding rate, ready to do work on the glass. Chris also smartly put a lot of consideration into selecting players, like Thomas, Keita Bates-Diop and Chandler Hutchison, who would give greater lineup flexibility and force the opposition into some challenging adjustments.
Ultimately, with four players in the top 15 in offensive rating among those used on at least 20% of possessions and two of the game’s elite defenders, I think Team Dan has a bit more firepower and may be better suited for a one-time All-Star game, with Team Chris having an advantage if these were teams being used over the course of a season (or maybe even in a best-of-seven scenario). In un-All-Star like fashion, this one ends when Team Dan comes up with a big defensive stop in the final seconds.